Monday, November 30, 2009

An Occupational Hazard

Sometimes writing is like juggling, like having apples and oranges in the air at the same time. You start to hear the next story before finishing the one you’re working on. Soon you have three or four going at the same time. ~ From Gravity, Muses Like Moonlight

We tend to forget that writing is a sloppy business. None of us would accept a garage mechanic working in our home, leaving greasy tools all over the place. But, somehow we accept writers working at home who are almost as messy. Many of us have one in our home, or are one.

Not only do writers who work at home make messes, but they are inclined to repeatedly burn pots of food on the stove or ignore a sink full of dishes in order catch their drifting thoughts onto paper. Loose papers get spread out all over the house. Stacks of them pile up, threatening to tip over. Half finished drafts and scraps, some typed, some scribbled, get started and then left, and then maybe lost in translation.

Weren’t computers supposed to save us from drowning in so much paper? My husband was recently trying to talk me into getting a laptop that you handwrite onto. The handwriting is then converted into typed and stored text. I told him I didn’t think I would use it, in the same way I didn’t use the digital recorder he bought me to talk my notes into. I couldn’t get used to playing back notes, re-winding and fast forwarding to find the right place. I’d rather shuffle through my papers, spread them out like a buffet, or like a puzzle I’m putting together, and see all parts of the whole. If I can’t hold the written evidence in my hand, I forget it exists.

“I know it’s messy, but this is the way I write,” I defended myself. I may use a computer more than ever before, but paper is still my first language.

Note: Originally posted on on June 4, 2005.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Writing: A Driving Force

Sometimes I think the moon is my muse, or is it the moon that brings the muse out in me? I can write without the muse, but it’s like using a hose to water my garden when it really needs a soaking rain ~ From Muses Like Moonlight by Colleen.

I’ve discovered that driving to Christiansburg a few times a month for the bigger city items not found in the small town is a wonderful way to stimulate writing. I now have a regular writer’s pit stop. By the time I pull over at the Riner Food Center, half way between Floyd and Christiansburg, I’m tense with the weight of words, as though I’ve been holding my breath. Once there, parked between The First National Bank and The Buffalo Store, I let it all out onto notebook paper. Whew.

Today, I was thinking about my brother Jim. When his daughter was a baby and he couldn’t get her to stop crying, he buckled her up in the car seat and took her for a drive around town. It usually worked like a charm, he told me.

What is it about getting out on the open road that seems to clear your head? It reminds me of how I make great doodles only when I’m talking on the phone or otherwise having a conversation. If I were to face a blank piece of paper and told to just make a doodle, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Similarly, it’s hard to write with a blank screen or paper in front of you. This is what I said about writing in my book The Jim and Dan Stories:

Writing doesn’t happen when I sit down with an empty piece of paper or at a blank computer screen to do it. It happens all day in my head, usually while I’m doing something else. And it won’t happen if I don’t take down those notes. If you don’t record your phone messages or write them down, chances are, you’ll forget them, especially if you’re getting a lot.

Writing does happen when I sit down with an empty piece of paper or at a blank computer screen and mix what happens there, on the spur of the moment, with the notes that I’ve already taken. If one exists without the other, writing doesn’t usually happen for me. The secret to writing a book, I think it’s this: Take good notes and write often enough that it starts to accumulate. But there is also an alignment that has to take place, when you match ability and willingness to do the work with the way that has opened to do it.

There is a craft to writing, but it won’t get you far if it’s not preceded by inspiration, also known as “the muse.” The muse can be elusive if approached directly, and in my life, it’s hard to know if the muse is driving me or if I’m driving the muse. I wonder, when I drive to Christiansburg, am I taking a temperamental muse for a ride, the way my brother drove his fussy baby around to help her settle down?

Note: Originally posted on on May 23, 2005.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Getting Paid

"I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to work at my real work." ~ Natalie Goldberg

In Muses Like Moonlight, my first collection of poetry and essays on writing, I wrote… Who can I bill for the 8 hours it took me to research and write this commentary?” I asked my husband, Joe, as I slapped a stack of paper on the kitchen table. I had just emerged from the computer room, which was beginning to feel like a dungeon. I complained to my brothers and sisters – via our email group link – that I had carpal tunnel of the body. After 4 more hours, I told them I had computer chair “bedsores.

Not only am I not going to get paid, but nobody cleaned the kitchen while I was working!” I added. Joe looked up calmly from the book he was reading. He wasn’t thrown off guard by my loud display because he knew that, for all my complaining, I was exhilarated by my accomplishment and glad that I was finally done.

The essay happily concludes like this:

My commentary (Voting Machine Voodoo) was published at COMMONDREAMS.ORG on the evening of the day I submitted it. The next morning I went to my computer to check my email and found the following: This is by far the best article I have read to date related to the voting machine fiasco. Thank you for using your obviously superior research skills and brilliant writing techniques to bring us into the light of truth. Congratulations!!!

As the day went on, more responses poured in… Excellent! Thank you for including references… and… I have a political radio talk show…Would you be willing to do a 15 minute interview on air?

I printed out a few of the emails that the commentary had generated to show to my husband. When I did, he not only looked up from whatever he was doing, but he physically got up to see what the excitement was about. After reading, he looked at me, smiling, and announced, “YOU JUST GOT PAID!”

The commentary was picked up by a dozen other internet sites. It was published in the Roanoke Times newspaper (December 12, 03) and the New River Free Press. I did the radio interview and got to plug my website. Hey, maybe I got overpaid.

Note: originally posted on on March 31, 2005

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Life is not for Wimps

I get nervous when I draw attention to myself. My hands shake when I open a Roanoke Times newspaper and know that a political commentary I wrote is inside. When the local newspaper did a story about my first book, I felt like a girl in my first training bra that the whole town knew I was wearing. And whenever I read poetry onstage at our local café, I blush and feel outside my body with fear.

Then why do I do it? I ask myself. Why do I put myself through something that takes such a toll? I could also ask why doesn’t Kim Bassinger, who has such state fright that she throws up before public performances, give up acting. I learned years ago at my nephew’s track meet that many athletes also throw up before competing – and it doesn’t stop them.

Michael Meade, the storyteller, mythologist, and author says that when you hit a block in your path (and in his case this would be a giant or dragon) you know you’re on the right path. If you don’t hit a block, it’s someone else’s path and not yours, he says.

When I was writing "The Jim and Dan Stories", I wasn’t happy with my day’s writing until I was bawling. I knew when I hit a nerve that I had reached the place of truest power. It’s those places of power that when gone unrecognized can rule our lives, usually unconsciously. Meade would say that you have to go into the woods, find and face your own giant, otherwise the giant will find you, and your chances of survival will be greatly diminished.

There is no question for me that I’m going to do the poetry reading and that I’m going to share my writing with others. The question is: will I ever solve the paradox of wanting to be heard and left alone at the same time? When I feel shaky, sped-up, or overly self-conscious I can be sure I’m getting close to some real soul work. And what else are we here for, but to be who we are, to learn and do what we signed up for?

My sister, Sherry, said to me recently, after realizing she needed reading glasses, “Getting older is not for wimps.” “Life is not for wimps!” I answered.
Note: The above theory does not apply to jumping out of airplanes and other things that I’m never going to do. I didn’t sign up for those.

From April 11, 2005.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Cursed Luck of the Irish

The thing the critics don’t get about me is the fact that I’m Irish ~ Eugene O’Neill

When I went to Ireland in 1997 to visit my grandmother’s hometown, I learned more about myself there than I could have in 10 years of psycho-therapy. The majority of the Irish people I met reminded me of my own family. I saw the faces of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings in their faces. And that’s not all. The Irish tend to be unpretentious, playful, tender-hearted, nostalgic, self-directed, and not overtly ambitious. They are often self-deflecting, something that can be endearing but it can also border on an inferiority complex. And I thought these traits were unique to my own family.

Although most Americans are aware of the devastation of Irish famine, our history books don’t tell the story of the Penal Laws that were imposed on the Irish by the English from the late 1600s to the nineteenth century. Under these laws, the Irish were denied their right to own land in their own country, to go school, to practice their religion, or speak in their own language. Poverty and oppression under foreign domination for centuries are likely to be contributing factors in the Irish trait of self-depreciation.

But before you get the idea that the Irish are sweet and meek; think again. They also have a history of being warriors, and they are hardly repressed (as much as the English and the Catholic Church tried) when it comes to self-expression, including that of a volatile or rebellious nature.

The Irish legacy is one of paradox. The luck of the Irish is super-imposed over Murphy’s Law (if something can go wrong it will), just as my passion to write and share my writing is super-imposed over my self-conscious public shyness.

It’s comforting to know that one’s faults are not solely our own doing, but can be traced to genetics, as well as to learned behavior passed down through generations. And if I can claim the wounds of my ancestors, I should also be able to claim their strengths, such as with their love of language. In an excerpt from a press release introducing my first collection of poetry, Muses Like Moonlight, I describe how my Irish heritage comes into play in my writing:

The Irish side of my family is rich with storytellers; some poems and a song have been published, and there are a few unpublished novels still floating around. I think the Irish influence in my poetry manifests as humor, my love of wordplay, and my inclinations towards short poems, about limerick in size.

I wasn’t completely aware of why I chose a picture of me in Ireland, wearing a shamrock pinned to my sweater with a waterfall behind me, as my blog photo. I knew it had something to do with wanting to take a break from writing political commentary and following the news compulsively (although being involved in politics is yet another Irish trait). I wanted to let my hair down, tell a good story, and hoped that the fairies and the gift of the blarney would come over me.

When I read “How the Irish Saved Civilization” years ago, I learned that the Irish were hired by monks to hand copy the classics and that they wrote little humorous ditties inside the margins of their work (usually about how boring their task was). I understood myself better after reading that, and I think the photo I chose for this blog is an acknowledgment of my ancestors and the tradition from which I write.

Originally posted on on April 13, 2005

Sunday, November 22, 2009

When the Muse Says 'Just Do It'

Death is real. It comes without warning. No one escapes it. Soon my body will be a corpse!” ~ A Buddhist passage

When my brother Jimmy died unexpectedly 3 years ago, I wrote his eulogy. My brother Danny died a month later and I wrote a poem describing how removing his breathing tube, IV, and other interventions was like taking Jesus down from the cross so that he could be released from his suffering and be allowed to die.

My brother’s deaths rocked my world to the core. Jimmy’s eulogy and the poem I wrote for Danny became the foundation that my first book was written on. It was as if all the writing I had done before their deaths led to that one point and with a fire set beneath me and the Muse announcing "On your mark, get set, go!" There was no time for research or to calculate the story, I just let it dictate itself to me. Each day’s writing was like a journal entry, field notes from the trenches of grief’s frontline, I wrote.

I questioned why I was writing the book; who did I think I was, writing a book, and who would want to read it? This is what I wrote in the introduction called “Down in the Hole:” Since my brother’s deaths, life has had a sharper focus. There are things I can see that I couldn’t see before. If I can describe what I see from inside this hole, will it help others when they are down in one? What place is this? How deep does it go? I want to know. I’ve never been here before. Can I make something constructive out of the powerless feeling of loss? Am I digging my way out, word by word? I’m writing Jim and Dan’s story because after living this story, no other seems worth telling, because what else can I do down here, because there’s nowhere else to go. I’m writing Jim and Dan’s story because I’m proud of their story. I want to shout from the rooftop how irreplaceable they are.

You see, I had no choice but to write the book, and I must have done something right because it’s being used in a death, grief and loss class at Radford University, and many people have contacted me to tell me how much the book has meant to them.

The irony of The Jim and Dan Stories is that I’m a better writer (not to mention a better person) for having written it, but it took writing it to be able to say that.

The above originally appeared on my blog on April 10, 2005.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Who is a Writer?

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous. ~ Robert Benchley

It only takes having one child to make parent. Following that logic, one might assume that one paid-for-published piece of writing would make one a writer. But it’s not that simple, and if that was the case, I would have been a writer 25 years ago.

To call oneself a writer can be considered presumptuous, if you are not financially successful at it or well known. But there are all degrees of being a writer, and just like actors can act in local theaters and still consider themselves actors, writers write locally too.

My definition of a writer is a person who is compelled to write, and if there is no payment involved, it only further confirms that they are one. A person who will work for days to find the just right word and the right order of every written line without the incentive of compensation is either a writer or not completely sane. When I say “I’m a writer,” I’m not necessarily claiming to be a “good writer.” I am saying that writing is what I’m interested in and what I do, more than anything else.

I started to refer to myself as a “poet” before I would say I was a “writer,” more to explain that I’m “a little different” than to describe a profession and, ironically, because I was asked to provide a bio-note for something I had written. By different, I mean that I am highly sensitive to my environment, slightly socially awkward and distracted (thinking about other things, like writing), and I can not thrive in a corporate work setting, or even hold a 9 to 5 job. You know, a poet.
People do cut some slack for writers, but they also want to know what novel you’ve had published. And being published, while it does happen from time to time, is like going to Hollywood and trying to get “discovered,’ and you don’t, so you come back to act in local theaters. Why is it if I say "I’m a mother,a foster care provider, a jeweler, or a shopkeeper" no one asks to see my credentials?

I suspect that most people’s hobbies are their real jobs and that their job should be the hobby, and if that was the case, think how many more writers and artists there would be. Confucius believed that all wisdom came from learning to call things by the right name. I’m all for naming who you are and what it is you do. That’s part of making it come true.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Blog Appetit

As a writer, my blog gives me the opportunity to break down my body of work into digestible bite size pieces. About a week’s worth of posts will fit on one page at any given time. I think of them like I think about a 7 course meal. I like to have a variety of short and long entries highlighted with a photo or two…a quote here... a link there…and a poem for those who have room for dessert. Sometimes a post is meant as an appetizer to whet one’s palette for a future main course and often the entries (knowingly or not) are loosely related or compliment each other in some way. After preparing and serving up my own offerings, I frequently go to someone else’s site to see what they’ve been cooking up.
And today we have a leftover…because it fits with the menu:

How a poem is like cake

Don’t use a mix
or stale ingredients
Don’t look in the oven
too much when it’s cooking
or eat too much at one sitting
Don’t over-sweeten
or over-stir
A baker and a poet
are both concerned with flavor
It’s all about consistency
and knowing when it’s done

Note: The above was originally posted on on May 25, 2005.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Editor Wanted

Rejection slip for ''The Diary of Anne Frank'' - The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ''curiosity'' level.

I submitted an essay to The Sun Magazine last week. Yesterday my husband noticed a typo in a copy of the already sent cover letter that was lying around in the vicinity of the kitchen table. Looking at the page with the typo on it, made me think of Native American beadwork.

I used to make jewelry – some beadwork and some wire work – and I was employed at Seeds of Light (a bead shop in Blacksburg) for many years, which is how I became aware of the following tradition: In some tribes, a bead artist will include an off-color bead in the midst of an elaborate and otherwise uniformed bead pattern. I have a Hopi peyote-stitch key chain like this. At first glance, and if you don’t know of the tradition, it looks like a mistake was made. I’ve heard that the off-color bead is used as a signature. Or, I’ve also heard that it’s meant to keep one from losing ones soul while gazing into the hypnotizing pattern.

I don’t claim such a thing for my typos, but it’s fun to think about.

Sometimes with writing, my mind sees what I meant, more than what I actually wrote. No time for editors or writing workshop feedback in the fast paced world of daily blogging. So far I have had 3 typos pointed out to me by readers on entries that I must have read more than a half a dozen times before posting. While I appreciate knowing about the typos, I also wonder, why is it we can’t easily see our own mistakes? Our own faults and body odors don’t bother us either, as much as those of other people.

Misspelled words? It runs in my family. I like to remind myself that standardized spelling only came into existence in the late 1800s. And this is what Andrew Jackson said about it: It’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.

I say: “Thank God for the spell check.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Speaking Bloggish

I may speak English, but I think in Bloggish – that ongoing internal conversation that when put down on paper amounts to writing. My bloggish comes in blocks of thought, too short to be a commentary or even an essay, but just the right size for a ... post.

Even my first book, The Jim and Dan Stories, about losing my brothers a month apart, was written in blog-style blocks. At first I was confused by the format that dictated itself, the slightly disjointed short pieces that I struggled to name. Essays? Vignettes? Journal entries? In the end, when viewed as a whole, those short prose pieces wove together a story; partly an account of my brother’s last weeks; part a memoir of growing up together in a large Irish Catholic family; and part a chronicle of my personal experience coping with all-consuming grief.

It seems that my mind thinks in excerpts from a larger text that fills my mind. I don’t think in linear “start to finish” ways. I’m one of those people who thinks in flash bulletins and browses through books from back to forward. Or I look at a word like “thinking” and see “thin king” or maybe “king thinking.”

Blogging comes natural to me. It reminds me of the high school notes that my girlfriends and I wrote and passed to each other in the school corridors. Whenever we got a chance, we picked up where we left off, channeling our thoughts, as though we were taking dictation from the Muse.

Blogging also appeals to my sense of efficiency. I like to speak and receive language succinctly, but I frequently struggle to put the right words together when articulating in the moment. I know exactly what I should have said, after the fact, usually when I’m writing it down. At a recent Spoken Word Event in Floyd, it was my turn to read my poetry. “Some people write because they don’t like to talk,” I announced to the audience before clearing my throat to read, hoping the written word would speak for itself.

Being a blogger, when someone asks me how I’m doing or what’s new, I can now skip the conventional perfunctory answers and refer them to my site address. Time for a letter home? Print out a blog page and catch everyone up. And of course, the archivist in me says, “Let’s get this on the record!”

Writing is the way I synthesize whatever I’m learning at the time, but it’s also the way I catalog what I already know. With blogging, I can cross reference myself and then match the results with what others are saying.

It’s a social activity too. Eventually bloggers find each other, and so you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. As a once prolific letter writer, I have always felt that writing is a good way to get to know one another, believing it has the potential to reveal more of one’s true self than the physical presentation can.

Don’t like small talk? Would you rather share insights? Explore topics? Are you a homebody who finds anything but the occasional social event overwhelming, or maybe superficial? Maybe you’re like me, a person who loves to get mail. You could be a blogger too, and blogs can be as light as a “pen pal central” or as serious at the watchdog political blogs that have recently been keeping the news media on its toes.

Finally, I think blogging is an act of self-sufficiency that isn't dependent on editors and publishers. Not only is it an immediate forum where you can develop your writing skills, I also believe that when you share your creative output, creativity grows larger in you.

There are lots of reasons for blogging. These are some of mine. I think I’ve been dreaming up and storing blog drafts in my head since I was a young girl. Early on, I was aware of an internal monologue, which would come through most clearly when I was off on my own, roaming the open fields of un-mowed grass and Queen Anne’s Lace in my hometown of Hull, Massachusetts. It was as if I was on a quest to perceive the world and then translate it by putting it in my own words. From there, I have arrived here… blogging on the Blue Ridge @

Note: The above was originally posted on my blog on March 26, 2005.